Interview: Kaleb Mullins and The Witness
Kaleb Mullins and The Witness is a folk-rock band from Knoxville, Tennessee. With their own unique style that some have labeled “Appalachia-cana,” the band’s original material combines a sonic blend of folk, blues, and grunge to weave together stories and songs that will both tug on your heart and make you stomp your feet.
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I honestly can’t remember what ‘got me into’ music, because music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started singing in church when I was five years old, and it just went from there. My mom made me take piano lessons before I could learn guitar, though, so my journey started begrudgingly with piano lessons. I picked up the guitar for the first time in fifth grade, and I was fully ‘in’ from that point on.
If I weren’t doing music, I’d probably be dabbling in the production and broadcasting world. My first job was for the local radio station.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I love traveling and spending time in new places. Whether that’s cities, new hikes, etc. I love seeing the diversity of the different places and people in the world, and that inspires me to tap into different sides of myself and different influences as I create new music. I don’t want to be the artist whose songs all sound the same. The world and its people and places are so diverse, and I hope that I take a little bit of that diversity and put it into the music I make.
How long has music been your career?
I’ve been releasing original music and playing shows for a little over two years now. In terms of a ‘career,’ music has always been something I’ve been involved with. I’ve worked with various churches as a music leader since I was in high school.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
The band and I are currently based in Knoxville, Tennessee. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky. Both of these places have a rich musical tradition. I grew up right along US-23, the “Country Music Highway” in Eastern Kentucky. Legends such as Tom T Hall, Loretta Lynn, the Judds, and modern stars like Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers all grew up along that stretch of road down into the Kentucky coal fields. I want to honor the tradition of the music and the people that come from that area of the country. Even though we’re not playing traditional country music, I believe that the influences of that region and its artists shines through our material.
Tell me about the best and worst shows you have played.
The best show we’ve played was just a few weeks back. We were invited to play the Memorial Day Weekend Festival in my hometown. That was very sentimental for me, and we all had a blast getting to play that show.
The worst show I played was this past April. I was recovering from being sick and tried to sing when I hardly had a voice. It did not go well. A guy who was filling in for us on guitar ended up singing most of the songs.
Tell me about your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
There’s a little bar in Knoxville called Schulz Brau. It’s a German brewery, and the outdoor Biergarten is just an absolutely beautiful place. It’s a Knoxville staple establishment, and it’s honestly one of our favorite places to play. It’s not a traditional venue, but it’s one of the most fun places we’ve had the privilege of playing.
The dream is to headline a show at the Tennessee Theater here in Knoxville, as well as at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. We feel a deep connection with our hometown, and to play the stage at the Tennessee Theater would be a huge accomplishment for us. So many legendary artists have taken that stage, and it would be incredibly meaningful for us to have that opportunity one day.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
If I were booking my dream lineup and these folks were still with us, we would open up for John Prine and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We’d make to sure play a short set so we could enjoy John and Tom for longer.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into music?
Just keep going. It’s so easy to get down on yourself, or feel like your music isn’t good enough to share with other people. I didn’t share any song that I had written with anyone until I was 24 years old, even though I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember. I wish I had started earlier. Be confident in yourself, in your abilities, and in the things that you want to express. Write the music. Record the song. Share it with others. And if the first go around isn’t fantastic, keep going. You’ll get better every time.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Stop worrying about what other people think. Most people aren’t thinking about you, anyways. It’s a little prideful to think that they are.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
There’s a song that we released on our EP in 2020 called “In Between.” We don’t play it very often at live shows, and it most likely won’t make the lineup for our album “Old Ghosts // New Stories” that is releasing this October. The chorus of that song goes: “Go ahead and take what you need. I’ll find some peace eventually. Cut me open, take the best of me. I’ve long resigned to play the in-between.”
It describes the tension of trying to make everyone else happy while completely draining yourself. That’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time, trying to strike the right balance between loving others and loving yourself. That song connects with that part of my personality and helps me express those feelings in a way that words really can’t.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
We have a song called “Empty Suit” that is just a blast to play. It has a very funk-inspired beat and strum pattern to it, and it just so much fun. You’ll be able to hear that one on our album when it releases in October.
Living in Knoxville, we get a lot of requests for “Rocky Top.” It hurts my Kentucky heart to sing it, but the people here love it. Don’t tell anyone from home…but it’s kind of fun to play.
What is the creative process for you, and what inspires you to write your music?
It’s funny — each song sort of comes together in a different way. Usually a line and a melody will come into my head, and I’ll go from there. I’ll be thinking on a topic of something that I want to write about, and I’ll try out a bunch of ideas in my head before I ever start writing anything down. Once I catch the line or the melody in my head, though, I immediately start writing. Generally the lyrics come first from that point, and then I’ll pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano to find the melody and the rhythm.
I can find inspiration from just about anything. I love to write about cultural topics, themes of justice and social tension. Our new work, though, is really coming from my personal life. “Old Ghosts // New Stories” is very much a breakup album, and it’s really about finding yourself after such a huge life event. I’m really proud of the work and the songs, even if the personal events that inspired them weren’t so fun to live through.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I try to write real songs that have real meaning. I want people to find hope and joy in the songs we write. But I also want to tell stories that force people to think. Or — write about social or political tension from my own perspective.
Do you ever have disagreements when collaborating and how do you get past them?
Honestly, no. Our band works really well together. We’ve been playing together in one form or another for nearly five years now. We know how each other thinks, we know what our influences are, as well as our strengths and weaknesses. I’m really proud of how our group works together.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
The next few months are super busy for us. We’re releasing our third single of the year, “Black Lung,” in early August. Then, our debut album called “Old Ghosts // New Stories” will be released in October. We’re planning on supporting that album with a tour across the southeastern United States. Be sure to check out “Black Lung” when it releases, and keep your ears open for “Old Ghosts // New Stories.” And — come see us this fall when we’re in your town!